Feminism (1/3)

honeymoonOne of my favourite stories my mother tells me about when she was a kid was the annual athletics day at her primary school.  Every year the whole school would line up at one end of the school field and run to the other end.  After doing this for a few years someone casually mentioned that this was actually a race, that you were supposed to try and get to the other end before everyone else.  “Oh, I get it” thought my mother who then proceeded to run across the field and come first.

The less funny end to this story happened a few years later when my mother and another girl approached the PE teacher and asked if  they could do the cross country run that all the boys did every year.  The PE teacher flatly refused: girls didn’t run.

If there is one way that the world has changed in the West since the time my mother was at school it is the education system’s attitude to girls and young women.  My mother was born in 1939 and grew up in Otago.  This means that she was at school from 1944 to 1956, and at university after that.

At secondary school there was a semi-streamed system.  Those who had shown academic ability did the professional courses, got the best teaching, stayed at school longer, and sat School Certificate, possibly UE.  Numbers dwindled after School C. though.  I went to Otago Girls High School in my lower-sixth year (Year 12).  There were two classes that year, but by upper-sixth (Year 13) we were down to 8-12  students: just those who hoped to go to university.

Others chose or were placed in Commercial (girls), Home Science (girls), Trades (boys) or at Mosgiel District High School there was an Agriculture option (mainly boys).  So most of the girls who did these courses went into office/clerical work, shop work, and factories.  There were few apprenticeships – though hair dressing was one.  Girls mostly aspired to getting married after a few years and starting a family a year or two (at most) after that.  A woman was not expected to continue working when she was pregnant in the 60s.  In some jobs they HAD to leave.  It was not usual to return to work after a baby was born.  In some fields a woman was expected to resign as soon as she got married.


solo2So, things have changed, but things have also stayed the same.  At the school where I teach the biggest shift  from the situation described above would be that most students stay to the final year of school rather than until the end of Year 11.  At a more academic school the retention rates to Year 13 would be even higher.  The other significant shift would be that girls and boys can do whatever subject they want.  The freedom to choose has changed, but the gender of the kids in certain classes not so much.  Looking at the options above and thinking about the gender make up of some subjects at my school I would say that kids doing Trades (hard materials) are 90% boys, and kids doing Home Science (textiles or food tech) are 90% girls by Year 12 and 13.  Academic courses in a Bachleor of Arts style are fairly blended by gender, but there would still be an edge to the boys in Maths and Science (although this is shifting pretty rapidly).

The fact that who takes some subjects has remained very gender determined shouldn’t take away from the major change that is important: students can freely choose their subjects and in the past they couldn’t.  This has had an unquestionably large affect on society and the outcomes for women.

My most recent copy of the Otago University magazine shows a photo of the 1968 Dentistry graduates.  There appear to be only two women.  That inspired me to find the record of degrees conferred in 1958 – Marshall’s year (my Dad).  There were no women’s names listed for the following: Master of Laws, Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Divinity, or Bachelor of Engineering (and, of course, no men listed for Home Science).


It’s very hard to imagine a Laws or Commerce course at university now without women (although, easier to imagine an Engineering course).

My mother became a teacher after she completed her degree at Otago University, and of course here was the next hurdle: equal pay.

Equal pay for women was phased in slowly and was resented bitterly by some men – to be fair – some women had “guilts” about it too.  In teaching it came earlier than for many other jobs.  I’m not sure whether the implementation was partial or complete by my second year of teaching (1962), but I was getting a (paid) lift to school with a male colleague, and after he had harangued me once too often about the evils of equal pay for women and how unfair it was to men supporting families, I’d had enough.  I remember ringing him up and saying, “It’s Mrs P- here.  I don’t want a ride with you anymore.  I’ll be catching the bus!”

This issue is still around although I think it has shifted from getting the same money for the same job, to women ending up with jobs that are paid less than men on average.

As with school, the big change has been in choice.  Women can choose to pursue a career in whatever field they like and aspire to senior positions in that field.  That’s not quite how it works in reality, but it has shifted a long way towards that ideal.

It seems a strange thing to say, but I actually lived in a society that roughly represented the values my mother descibes as applying to 1960s New Zealand.  Between 1998 and 2003 Cathy and I lived in Osaka.  Japanese society has a far less progressive attitude to its women than it might seem at first.  There are many aspects of Japan that have a surface appearance of modernity, but are purely surface.  For example, Japan is regarded as a democratic country with regular elections and elected representatives attending the Diet.  This plays nicely around the world.  The slight problem is that exactly the same party (the LDP) has been in power for 60 years.

Equally, Japan has all the modern laws around gender equality that a modern democratic (ahem), western (ahem) country is supposed to have.  Universities in Japan are streamed.  Some universities are what we would call polytechs, others are more into training people how to do word processing, and the top universities (Tokyo and Kyoto) are more like Victoria or Otago here.  The school you go to, the courses you are put into, and the results you get in your exam determine which universities you can go to.  There ain’t a lot of women at certain universities… infact Japan has women’s universities.  After university these women get office jobs but the massive, societal expectation is that they will be married before they are 25 (the Christmas cake age) and when they marry they will leave their job. 

mum and auntyI can vividly remember when the manager of our school in Sakai (Osaka) got married.  She was very good at her job, was making the company a lot of money, and didn’t want to stop working.  After a few weeks of trying to carry on some senior managment showed up and she got told, not directly of course, the Japanese don’t do direct, but the message was very clear – this company doesn’t employ married women.  She was in tears.  A week after that she “retired”.

This kind of thing is denigrating and repressive.  It strips individuals of their sense of self, and must surely lead to unhappiness and despair.  Standing to the side of this woman’s “retirement” and watching it as a foreigner it was very hard to understand.  Social pressure and expectation though is a massive weight and very few people can bear it.  I suspect that even those who appear to withstand it are changed and damaged on the inside.  I think this is why so much of the stuff I have read about women’s lib in the 70s has been about sisterhood and uniting, because it’s very hard to fight these things on your own.  Very hard to insist in 1950s Otago that you finish your education, that you do academic subjects, that you go to university, and that you work for a living.  And for some, quite something, to hear on the radio, after years of pushing crap uphill:

If I have to I can do anything.

I am strong.

I am invincible.

I am Woman.

Published by


I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

9 thoughts on “Feminism (1/3)”

  1. Hi Richard.I’ve revisited the (full version of) the original slide and am pretty sure that the photo was taken outside the Pan American office/depot in Ak city. (Jan 1962). We visited there between arriving in Ak and going out to the airport for the flight. In the full photo Marshall has a PanAm bag and we are under a promo for “Economy Trips to Fiji”.I guess lots of travel agencies would have had those posters on display at that time.

  2. Well, Mum, that picture was around Wellington in the 70s. I remember it well. Perhaps there were quite a few of them, or they sent the one to different places.

    ps. I was joking when I said John-Paul isn’t funny – his picture at school of a guy cleaning up a puddle to help explain evaporation is up there with Monty Python!

  3. I’m guessing too. It was a long time ago!(Jan 61 or 62) As I appear to be holding a carton of duty free cigarettes it was possibly taken at Ak airport on my return. It’s definitely not Wgtn as we were living in Dn at the time and travelled to Ak by train) to fly to Fiji (Pan Am).My first flight! If not Ak then it must be in Fiji.

  4. On reflection, it might be at an airport in New Zealand on the way to Fiji.

    Which means that picture might have been in the window of any travel agent in Wellington at the time (late 50’s early 60s?).

    And you’re right. I have never been funny (except if you look at me from certain angles).

  5. I have no recollection of you ever being funny.

    Well, I remember that picture being somewhere in Wellington – I’ve never been to Fiji.

  6. It was taken in Fiji.

    I realise that this sounds like I’m trying to be funny, but it’s actually true.

  7. Was that picture of your mum taken outside the Thorndon Tavern? It’s driving me mad trying to remember where that picture of the Fijian lady was.

  8. Good reading. Attitudes to women in the workplace have changed quite a lot in some countries but in others have still a long way to go. In 1985 my sister, a respected GP went to Edinburgh to work. She was looked down on by the Scottish medical professionals even though she had A+ qualifications. Scotland has a proud history of medical advancement but the establishment had a poor attitude to their female colleagues. When my sister married in Edinburgh it was a formal affair with the service at Grey Friars and reception in a stuffy hall. After my Dad gave the father of the bride speech my sister broke with tradition and delivered a great answering speech. People could have fainted from oxygen starvation after the combined intake of breath by the old guard. In 1995 may partner Lynn and I were staying with my sister’s parents in law in Edinburgh. One evening the conversation touched on unemployment. My sister’s father in law theorised that the problem in the main was due to women being allowed in the workforce thereby taking jobs from men. I’m glad that I wasn’t sitting between him and Lynn as her glance was dangerous. She then gave an encapsulated history of the women’s movement and the advancements that women have brought to modern society once being freed of only being mothers and housewives. It was a quiet evening after that and we all retired to bed early. The thing is that the father in law is an intelligent and well educated man and at the time was in his late 60’s and still a professor at Edinburgh university. He is a man of his times and environment.

Comments are closed.